Politics & Government

‘You don’t poke the lion:’ CMS vote renews calls to break up the school system

Students pack a classroom at J.M. Alexander Middle School.
Students pack a classroom at J.M. Alexander Middle School. Observer file photo

Tuesday’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board vote has escalated tensions with many of the county’s suburbs — and the lawmakers who represent them.

One county commissioner even renewed his call for a breakup of the 148,000-student system. “This just pours fuel on the fire,” said Commissioner Jim Puckett, a Republican.

What the board did was pass the “Municipal Concerns Act of 2018,” a measure that would effectively block future school construction in Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius. Those are the towns authorized to create municipal charter schools under a bill the General Assembly passed this year. They wouldn’t get back on CMS’ construction priority list unless they agree not to launch a municipal charter for 15 years.

The vote heated up a simmering feud between CMS and Mecklenburg County’s suburban areas, as well as urban school systems and surrounding areas across the state.

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When the charter bill passed last June, one former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair called it “morally reprehensible.”

State NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman invoked the days of segregation. He called it a “sneaky” attempt to create “Jim Crow independent school districts.”

But many in Mecklenburg’s suburbs have long felt they haven’t gotten a fair shake from the school system. They saw the charter bill as a way to have more choice or at least to make CMS more responsive. In June lawmakers created a study committee to look into the possible breakup of big urban districts.

Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, called Tuesday’s CMS vote an “egregious mistake.”

“I believe this is perhaps the least thought through and most harmful decision I have seen made by a CMS Board of Education in my 26 years of involvement with CMS,” Tarte said in a release.”

Puckett said the school system “is driving the suburban taxpayers away.”

“The free market is beating the crap out of them right now,” he said, “and their knee-jerk reaction is to fight student choice and try and force taxpayers into a narrow, government-only option.”

Bill Brawley
Rep. Bill Brawley MLewis

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican who sponsored the charter bill, said he’d have to talk to local officials before deciding whether there’s a legislative response to the CMS measure. But he said he was “shocked” by the vote.

“I’m disappointed that CMS has chosen to punish the children of the parents who are staying with CMS as a way to punish the parents who want to leave,” Brawley said. “I don’t see how anybody thinks this is good policy.”

Charlie Jeter, a former GOP legislator who’s now government relations coordinator for CMS, defended the vote.

“So how is CMS supposed to look at building schools in these communities when they are actively trying to separate from us?” Jeter said. “They intended to use this as leverage so we would over-fund suburbs to the detriment of Charlotte, Pineville and Davidson.”

Jeter said more than 90 percent of the county’s population lives outside the four small towns, suggesting that’s where most of the needs are.

Charles Jeter
Charles Jeter

“Every dollar that we are forced to spend in the suburbs at the point of a bayonet is a dollar that does not go to where it is most needed in the community,” he said.

Some legislators said they’re taking a wait-and-see approach.

“My view is that we will exercise restraint and let this sort out,” said Sen. Dan Bishop, a Charlotte Republican. “And of course we’ll be amenable to concerns of local government folks.”

GOP Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius said he’s still gauging reaction to the CMS vote. But he said the “optics” weren’t good.

“If CMS’ intent is not to take care of the students in four municipalities, we’ve got a massive problem,” he said.

Jeter, who represented Huntersville, said CMS critics aren’t looking at the big picture.

“They go off and think . . . they’re worried about the kids. No they’re not,” Jeter said. “They’re worried about the kids in their neighborhood. They couldn’t care less about 90 percent of the kids in the county. They’re willing to use 10 percent to extort the 90 percent. Tell me again how we’re the bad guys?”

One county commissioner questioned CMS’ decision to play hardball on the school issue. Suburban lawmakers, including House Finance Chair Brawley, wield influence in the General Assembly.

“Playing hardball with them is not anything that makes sense to me,” said county Commissioner Pat Cotham, a Democrat.

“It’s like you don’t poke the lion.”

Jim Morrill; 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill
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